University of the air nears blast off

August 14, 1998

Tim Cornwell talks to an African entrepreneur whose dreams of providing an information network for much of the Third World are about to take off

The "university of the air", as Noah Samara calls it, takes flight this October. An Ariane rocket blasting off from Guyana will finally test the Ethiopian entrepreneur's grand vision of a digital radio network carrying news, music, information and education to Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Since the early 1990s Mr Samara has talked up a storm with his dream of a satellite network aided by clockwork radios taking the information revolution to parts of the planet where the phones barely work.

His WorldSpace corporation is backed by a reported $1 billion in investors' cash. "It is predicated on the perception or the belief, actually the conviction, that the difference between say a doctor and a homeless person is the information that the two have," said Mr Samara, talking from his Washington DC base. "One of the main things that is lacking in much of the developing world is information on some very basic things."

WorldSpace is primarily a commercial venture. But it is setting aside a few digital channels on each satellite for educational programming that will run the gamut from children's storytelling to teacher training. WorldSpace is working with, among others, Unesco, the University of South Africa, and Alama Iqbal Open University in Pakistan to provide programme content.

Mr Samara, with degrees in law and international business from Georgetown University - the alma mater of Bill Clinton - founded WorldSpace in 1990 after working as a regulatory affairs manager for a Washington satellite company. He won channel space from the International Telecommunications Union for a venture that was both ambitious and disarmingly simple. WorldSpace's three satellites, AfriStar, AsiaStar and CaribStar, will each broadcast about 200 digital channels. These "elemental" channels each deliver 16 kilobytes of data per second, the digital equivalent of an AM radio talk station. But they can be combined to deliver as much as 128 kbps, sufficient for FM quality stereo radio or multimedia transmissions of print and pictures. In practice each satellite is likely to broadcast 60-80 separate channels.

Radio is at the heart of Mr Samara's dream. WorldSpace has already signed contracts to carry programming from commercial and government broadcasters in South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria. One potential hurdle: consumers will need to acquire digital radios priced $100-150. But Samara's initial market plans are modest, expecting only ten million listeners on three continents in the first three-to-four years.

"A lot of people think in a world where the television and the Internet are going wild, what's the role for radio?" says Mr Samara. But radio remained resilient even in the television-saturated United States. "So long as we have the sense of sound as one of our five senses, I think radio will always have a place on our lives."

For its educational ventures, WorldSpace has donated channel space to a Social Development Foundation set up by Mr Samara with funding of $200,000 a month. It makes for a "lean and mean" operation, says Habib Khan, director of the foundation's international programming. Pakistan-born Dr Khan, a teacher in Doncaster, Yorkshire, before working for USAID in three African countries, calls his plans "education with a small 'e', though there are some big 'E's too". There are about 20 projects on the radar screen, he says. Mr Samara has donated five channels on each of his satellites to the foundation.

Radio is already widely used for distance learning, but WorldSpace's digital technology expands the medium's possibilities. WorldSpace has taken a 10 per cent share in Baygen, the company that makes wind-up radios.The plan is that Baygen should make receivers with data ports that can be hooked to a computer to download text and images. Listeners will not get the Internet, however: that requires two-way communication.

Dr Khan is drawing up plans for an Africa Learning Channel that would include maths and literacy teaching along with health and family information, music, storytelling, drama and educational talk shows. It has had enthusiastic backing from African education ministers, he says, though with broadcasts set to begin early next year it has yet to establish an African base.

WorldSpace is awaiting a letter of association from the Pakistan government that will allow it to press ahead with its collaboration with Alama Iqbal, already a major supplier of distance education with 250,000 students and 40 campuses. The university broadcasts over state radio but with limited hours and on weak and run-down transmission equipment, Dr Khan says.

WorldSpace is offering 24-hour access and clear reception in the most remote areas. "We will provide them with a microphone and they will deliver their own message."

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